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Surprise ending: Occupation over

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 29, 2004


In a ceremony cloaked in secrecy, US Ambassador Paul Bremer formally ended the US occupation of Iraq Monday, closing down the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) he has led for the past year.

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The style of the transfer, hastily held two days ahead of schedule because of fears of a terrorist attack, was a fitting coda to Mr. Bremer's administration here. The CPA has repeatedly been forced to shift course by a deepening insurgency that has made it difficult to put US ideals into practice.

"To be blunt, we failed,'' says a CPA adviser, preparing to return home to the US. "I don't think you can blame Bremer. We just weren't prepared for what we were getting ourselves into."

When Bremer arrived here last May he came with stirring promises of leading Iraq to a prosperous and democratic future. Most Iraqis were still reveling in the euphoria generated by the toppling of Saddam Hussein. The US occupation would last, Bremer said, until a new constitution had been written and democratically elected leaders were ready to replace him.

Monday, with violence spreading and broad Iraqi discontent with the US occupation, Bremer handed power over to an unelected government without a new constitution. Bremer once said the ratification of such a constitution (enshrining minority rights and considerable autonomy to Iraqi Kurds) was a necessary step on the path to rebuilding the nation.

Those close to Bremer say he considers the absence of a constitution like the one the US helped write for postwar Japan his biggest disappointment.

That disappointment is one of many for the CPA, hamstrung in its early days by limited money (only $800 million was initially budgeted for reconstruction) and by overly optimistic assessments that Iraqis would take quickly to the brand of democracy and free-market capitalism the US still hopes to install here. It wasn't until after Bremer went before Congress last September that $18.6 billion was allocated. Only now are large amounts of that money being spent.

The delay proved decisive. Among a citizenry used to a centralized economy and a history of projects lavished on favorites of the old regime, it seemed as if the world's superpower was deliberately withholding aid, and resentment turned into anger.

Four CPA officials interviewed used the same phrase - "a window of opportunity was missed" - in discussing their regret that money didn't get to Iraqis during the early honeymoon period for the CPA.

While the CPA posts a long and impressive list of accomplishments - ranging from refurbishing schools and hospitals to constructing power plants and training thousands of Iraqis in the basics of democracy - surveys show that general goodwill among the public has largely been lost as most Iraqis are still waiting for more electricity, better security, and jobs.

"Reconstruction isn't about bridges or houses,'' says Imad al-Shibib, a senior adviser to Iraq's new Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, who sought to advise the CPA on policy here. "It's about the Iraqis themselves - salaries, money for their families. That was what was needed."

16-hour days

Any failures certainly weren't for lack of trying. The can-do Bremer, a former aide to US secretary of State Henry Kissinger and a senior diplomat focused on counterterrorism in the first Bush Administration, drove himself and his staff hard during his tenure, with one CPA advisers saying 16-hour days seemed like the "minimum" the ambassador put in.

In his trademark blazer and desert combat boots, Bremer endlessly toured the country by helicopter, held meetings with leading Iraqi political figures and, in his public statements, relentlessly stayed on message: The US could and would shepherd Iraq to democracy. America wouldn't be leaving until the job was done.